September 02, 1991 12:00 PM

THE TOUGHEST PART OF BEING IN PRISON,” says Pete Rose, “was when my wife and little boy visited, and then having to watch him lean out of the car window waving goodbye as they drove away.” Recalling the bleak months he spent at a federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., Rose sits on a sofa at the Vernon Manor Hotel in Cincinnati, just up the hill from Pete Rose Way and Riverfront Stadium, scene of so many of the triumphs in his 24-year major-league baseball career.

The incarceration was tough on his family, too. Says Carol Rose, 37, Pete’s second wife: “How do you explain to a 6-year-old [Tyler] who worships his father that he has to leave him at the end of the visitation period? Both Pete and Tyler would have tears in their eyes, and Tyler would cry all the way back to the hotel room.” Adds Pete Rose Jr., 21, from Rose’s first marriage to the former Karolyn Englehardt, now following in Dad’s spikes as an in-fielder with the Class A Sarasota White Sox: “I went because he wanted me there for him. But that’s my dad, and I love him to death, and all I wanted to do was take him home with me.”

Who could have imagined, a few years ago, that Pete Rose would come to this? For more than two decades he was Charlie Hustle, banging out more base hits—4,256 of them—than any other player in major-league history and capturing the imagination of millions of fans with the headfirst ferocity of his play. In his day Rose led the Cincinnati Reds to two world championships (and the Philadelphia Phillies to another in 1980) and epitomized the kind of old-fashioned baseball values that now seem lost in the age of agents and holdouts, strikes and lockouts.

But outside the foul lines, there was a darker side to Rose’s bravado. His stormy first marriage ended in divorce in 1980 after 16 years. Reports of uncontrolled gambling, including allegations that he bet on his own sport, began emerging in January 1989. A six-month investigation culminated on Aug. 23, when Rose signed an agreement banning him from baseball for life. Then in April 1990, Rose pleaded guilty to two counts of failure to report income from gambling and memorabilia sales. His term—five months in prison, followed by three months in a halfway house where he performed much of his 1,000 hours of community service—ended last April.

Now, recently turned 50, Pete Rose retains some of the essential toughness of his playing days, a certain Jimmy Cagney tilt that probably served him well in stir. But he is grayer, heftier and considerably chastened by his fall. “I know what I’ve been through,” he says, “and I don’t want to go through it again.” Although he was in a minimum-security penitentiary, he and many of his fellow inmates were sent on work crews to a nearby maximum-security prison. The warden assigned Pete to a welding job because it kept him at the far end of the prison workshop, where he’d be sure to steer clear of trouble. The worst of it, he remembers, was having to go to lunch through the heavily secured cell area. “These were bad dudes behind locked doors,” Rose recalls. “The rule was that there had to be two locked doors between us and the inmates there. Listening to those doors clang shut really made you feel like you were in prison.” His solution: “I stopped going to lunch.”

Despite the greater freedom, Rose found the halfway house in Cincinnati even grimmer than prison. “The place was so dirty, I didn’t want my family there,” he says. (Carol and Tyler came anyway.) “Plus, they had state prisoners there—murderers, rapists. You could get into a fight every day if you wanted to. I told them the first week, ‘I’d rather go back to prison.’ ” Still, a certain pride shows through when he talks about the community service he did during the work-release portion of his sentence. “I worked at five different schools,” Rose says, “and four of them were among the worst in Cincinnati.” So Rose, former manager of the Cincinnati Reds, found himself assisting school gym teachers. “I saw firsthand what trouble some of our schools are in,” he says. “I feel I helped some of those kids. Hell, the majority of them just wanted love and direction from a male.”

Carol offers her own report card. “Pete’s always had a heart,” she says, “and I saw a side of him that others didn’t see. He doesn’t try to portray such a macho attitude anymore. He’s more himself now, rather than trying to be the way he thinks others want him to be.”

During the incarceration, Carol moved the family to Boca Raton, Fla., then flew back and forth with the children for visits. Now Pete intends to open a restaurant and build a house there. But he still commutes regularly to Cincinnati, his boyhood home, where he is part owner of two restaurants. Five times a week he does a morning radio commentary on the Reds.

Rose says he’s also working on syndicated radio and television shows spotlighting sports. And at $20 per signature, he’s a favorite, still, on the card-show circuit. He’s even considering getting into horse breeding—although, he quickly adds, he won’t venture into anything like that without consulting his “gambling doctor,” Dr. James Hilliard, head of the psychiatry department at the University of Cincinnati.

Seeking help, however, is still not Rose’s style. “I know what I can do and what I can’t do,” he says. “My problems came from illegal gambling, and I’ve always been the sort of person who could pretty much do what he put his mind to, whether it’s getting 200 hits in a season or stopping gambling.” And he minimizes the extent of his addiction. “I wasn’t the sort who had to bet until I was broke,” he maintains. Since he says he made $2.2 million as a full-time player and another $1 million as Cincinnati’s player-manager, Rose seems well-heeled enough to support his family—but not sufficiently flush to bankroll his investment opportunities alone. “I’m looking for bucks,” he admits.

For the first time in his life, Rose realizes, he must establish a foundation outside of baseball. The thorny question of his possible reinstatement in the game—and the election to the Hall of Fame that would likely follow—is out of his hands. He still bristles at any claim that he bet on baseball, recently saying that “Howard Cosell doesn’t know what he’s talking about” for alleging he did. It also rankles him that A. Bartlett Giamatti, the baseball commissioner who pursued the Rose investigation (and died at age 51, one week after Rose was banished), publicly aired his suspicions on this subject, even though the agreement states there were “no formal findings or determinations” that Rose bet on baseball. Rose jabs a finger at his visitor and says, “That’s like a judge saying to you, ‘You’re innocent of murder in the first degree—but I think you did it anyway.” He pauses reflectively for a moment, then says, “You may not believe this, but I really liked Bart Giamatti. I think it’s because we both loved baseball.”

To date, 15 men—including Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the infamous Chicago Eight from the 1919 Black Sox scandal—have been banned permanently from baseball. None has been reinstated, but, as Rose notes, “None of them ever applied, either.”

Rose’s aspirations to the hall now rest with Giamatti’s successor, Fay Vincent. The new commissioner has thus far taken a hard line. He criticized Rose for appearing at a minor-league tribute in Reading, Pa., to Mike Schmidt, his former teammate with the Philadelphia Phillies. Vincent also refused to allow Rose to wear an old Detroit Tigers uniform for his performance as Ty Cobb in NBC’s upcoming movie The Babe Ruth Story.

The old Pete Rose would likely have come back swinging; the new Pete feints and parries. “I’d like to have worn a uniform,” Rose says, “but, hey, I’m the last person who wants any trouble with Commissioner Vincent. Anyway, the time isn’t right for me to reapply yet. My priorities are to get my life and my family’s life in order. If I apply for reinstatement, I have to believe that Commissioner Vincent is a fair man and an understanding man, and that he’ll give me another chance. If he doesn’t”—Rose shrugs—”there’s nothing I can do about it. Anyway,” he wryly concludes, “I’m not going to bet on it.”

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